CEO Talk: James McDonald, Cactus Semiconductor

May 31, 2018, anysilicon

This interview was conducted with James McDonald, President at Cactus Semiconductor.


james macdonald small


Tell me a bit about your background? How did you first get started with Cactus Semiconductor?


A majority of my education and experience has come from the technical side, primarily electrical engineering design and development.  There is a significant semiconductor industry in Arizona.  Coming out of Arizona State University, I started out like many EE’s in the area working for Motorola.


Initially I was doing a lot of design in the high-performance clock drivers and PLL areas.  Over the course of my career I eventually ended up at Medtronic and moved into technical management. The time at Medtronic really shaped the future of our company.  After about 5 years at Medtronic, I had this idea to start a company focused on analog integrated circuit design.  I found a partner, Nandini Srinivasan, our COO, who was a good complement to my skills and had a similar value system.   So, we made the jump and co-founded the company in late 2002.


Tell me about Cactus Semiconductor?


Our company, originally called “Cactus Custom Analog Design”, started out in late 2002 as a pure integrated circuit design and development company. With the existing semiconductor business in the Phoenix area and Motorola splitting up and companies such as On Semiconductor and Freescale forming, we knew a lot of people at several companies.  This helped us get our business up and running with a large potential list of customers.


Like any company, over time our plans were to evolve into a full-service turn-key fabless semiconductor company. With Nandini and I, along with several key members of the company, coming from the Medtronic Semiconductor Group, we naturally had a niche in low power medical IC design. However, we had a lot of work to do to develop the infrastructure and a quality management system (QMS) to support these products.  We also needed to develop the relationships with vendors to support the manufacturing, assembly and test of these products.  By around 2009 we had our systems and relationships in place to start our first full turn-key Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) in the medical area.


Since 2009 we continue to focus on full turn-key ASICs.  Our experience and expertise in designing low power battery operated mixed signal ASICs  for implantable medical devices has opened up opportunities in markets such as Internet of Things (IoT), wearable devices and power management.


When did you start Cactus Semiconductor? What were you doing before that?


Our company is now in our 16th year.  We start in 2002 under the name of Cactus Custom Analog Design, CCAD for short.  Eventually we changed our name to Cactus Semiconductor to better represent our capabilities as a full fabless semiconductor company. Prior to starting Cactus, both my business partner and I were part of the Medtronic Semiconductor Group.  The experience in low power analog design with a medical focus helped pave the way to our primary market at Cactus today.  As a Design Manager at Medtronic, I was able to see the big picture requirements to running an IC development group.  This knowledge allowed us to get started as a design service company way back in 2002.


What problem did you see that needed to be fixed? What is your approach to solving that?


A lot of medical device companies, particularly implantable medical device companies, really require low power and miniaturization of the electronics.  In addition, they each have unique analog requirements that are custom to their medical therapies. To make a system from off-the-shelf components usually results in much bigger form factors with much higher power consumption. Therefore, there is a need for a custom or at least a semi-custom integrated circuit to realistically get to the power and size specifications for their implantable system.


Most of these companies require only 1 ASIC for several years.  Hence, most medical device companies, particularly startups, it is not reasonable to staff up and develop the infrastructure of a semiconductor company for that 1 ASIC.  This is where Cactus Semiconductor can bring our experience, expertise, and ecosystem into play to design, develop and support production of their ASIC.   Since we are designing for many medical device companies, we have the economies of scale working in our favor.


How was the role/offering of Cactus Semiconductor changed during the recent years?


Initially we started out as a pure design service company.  Gradually, as we build our quality systems and established our vendor relationships, we moved into full turn-key ASIC development and production support.  A few years ago, we also designed our first Cactus branded Application Specific Standard Product (ASSP) for neuro-stimulation.  This medical focused semi-custom IC gives companies a chance to prove out their therapies for neuro-stimulation while taking advantage of the size and power benefits of this application specific product without the engineering development costs (NRE) and cycle time of a full custom integrated circuit.


What is a typical customer for Cactus Semiconductor?


We have perhaps 3 distinct segments of customers.  Our biggest market is in the medical application space, particularly implantable medical devices.  A second segment of customers is in the portable, battery operated, often energy harvesting, space.  These customers are absolutely concerned about power and size, much like the implantable medical customers, but have more Internet of Things (IoT) or wearable consumer applications in mind.  Lastly, we still maintain our pure design service offering.  This appeals to major vertically integrated semiconductor companies and some of the very large medical device companies who need more design bandwidth or some expertise that Cactus can offer.


What are the 3 top things you wish your customers would do better (or different)?


I would say first, a solid specification is a must prior to embarking on design.  Next, understanding that all development processes are not the same.  Lastly, communication and transparency in that communication are critical.


I think for all customers the key to success for both of us is a solid definition or specification of the product they want us to design.  The further along in the development cycle, if requirements change, even slightly, the rework and verification process is time consuming.  If changes occur late in the game, there is an added risk.  Concurrent engineering can have benefits, but it comes at a cost.


Speaking of cost, cost and schedule are critical components of development, but there are other aspects to consider such and the quality of the development process and risk.  We can avoid doing top level mixed mode simulations completely or we can do several weeks of those simulations.  Several weeks of simulations will help find problems, design in quality and reduce risk, but it will also cost more and take more time.  Producing high quality first silicon designs should be the focus.  In the end, this will save our customers both time and money.


Finally, it is very important to keep communications open and be transparent about your real needs.  There are always trade-offs to be made in cost, schedule, risk, performance as well as other factors.  Only if we communicate openly about the project milestones and goals will we, as a team, be able to make optimal decisions based on those trade-offs.


Are you currently hiring? What type of jobs?


We are looking for experienced Test Engineers that ideally have some Product Engineering experience as well. We are also looking at increasing our digital design staff.  As a small company, we prefer digital designers that have a broad level of experience with all stages of design. This would include RTL coding, verification, place and route, test insertion, timing closure, etc. We only hire direct.  We don’t use 3rd party agencies. So, the best way to apply is through our website.


What is your #1 advice for people who want to work for Cactus Semiconductor?


Technical skills are obviously important, but teamwork and soft skills are equally important to those who wish to be successful at Cactus.  As a small company, everyone will have exposure to our customers.  We use the phase, “Check your ego at the door”.  Our focus is on helping the team succeed, which includes our vendors and our customers.  As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” If the team succeeds, inherently there will be individual success, opportunities, and rewards.


Where can one find more information?


The best place to find more information is at our website, www.cactussemiconductor.com


How do you spend your time outside working hours?


Running a company can be all consuming, especially mentally.  Getting away from the office is not just being physically away but mentally relaxing.  I have found endurance sports a great way to relieve stress and relax.  I’ve been running marathons for about 20 plus years with a goal of running a marathon in every state plus DC.  I have 6 more states to go.  Also, I started participating in triathlons about 10 years ago.  I’ve successfully completed 2 full Ironman triathlons.  I’m fortunate that my wife also enjoys these activities.  After a hard workout we often go out for a nice dinner and maybe throw in some ice cream as a treat.

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